What They Don’t Teach You In Film School

Getting a film degree before having a career in video production is great, but they don’t tell you it all. We've got some behind-the-scenes info you won't get in film school.

Education for a career in the video production field is a fairly contentious topic, with opinions ranging from “a strong technical program is crucial” all the way to “formal education is a complete waste of money.” I’m not going to tackle that question today, but I will tell you about my personal experience – I myself have a BS in Film & Television Production from Boston University – a degree that, there’s no way around it, cost me a lot of money to get.Did I need that degree to do what I do now? Frankly, no. Knowing what I know now, would I have instead taken that money and invested it into starting a business – unequivocally, yes. However, I didn’t know then what I know now and it took those college experiences (and mistakes) to get me to where I am today. The trajectory of my life would have been much different (I wouldn’t have met my wife, for example), but if we’re talking strictly from the perspective of dollar-for-dollar value, my tuition money could have been spent more wisely.

I don’t regret much about my undergraduate experience – it was one of the greatest times of my life, both for personal growth and for experiential learning. If anything, I wish I had been less concerned about missing class and passing exams. I turned down a number of long term below-the-line gigs on big productions because I didn’t think I could miss that much class time. I know now that the real-world industry experiences I gained during college were, by and large, much more valuable, from a practical knowledge standpoint, than what I was getting in the classroom. I took advantage of plenty of opportunities and worked on some great sets, but wish I’d done even more.

Regardless, the educational component that seems to be lacking no matter what path you take to get into the industry: a solid foundation of business acumen. During my undergrad I learned plenty about equipment and how to use it. I learned set terminology, protocol and etiquette. I learned the various roles within the grip & electric, camera, audio, & art departments as well all the above-the-line jobs and how they all work together to run a proper set. By my second year my love of post really began to blossom and I spent countless hours in a dark basement hunched over a Steenbeck flatbed learning how to edit celluloid with my trusty Catozzo 16mm film splicer (which still sits on a table in my edit suite). I wrote critical essays. I dissected scenes. I read volumes of material by the greatest cinematic minds: Bazin, Truffaut, Rothman, Murch. There is value in these skills and this knowledge, no question. However, once I graduated that value became much less important in the face of my total cluelessness about running a business. And that’s the first thing needed after graduation for the majority of film & television students – because when you become a freelancer, you are immediately just that – a business.


I had no idea how to bill clients or create an invoice. No idea that I should always work with a contract. No idea that I should NEVER deliver master files without first getting paid. I had no idea how to prepare my taxes, what I could write off, whether to create a business entity or just act as an individual, what to do about insurance (both for my gear and myself) and how to create a budget that would allow me to manage cash flow and eventually reinvest in myself. When I say I didn’t know these things, it’s not because I wasn’t paying attention in class. They were never even mentioned. Not once. We talked about great art and about making feature films as if they handed out directing gigs immediately after diplomas.

The focus was on learning about equipment in the abstract, gaining technical skills from a checklist and completing projects that I (or a team of my peers) conceptualized, often with very few outside parameters. These are all things that have very little real-world utility. It’s very easy in film school to become a bit pretentious – I spent a ton of time in seminars watching the great works of the cinematic masters. I was convinced I would never shoot on anything but film. We turned our noses up at the news jockeys down the hall in the television program who shot on “video”. Even my Intro to Digital Editing class (taught on Avid FILM Composer, of course) was mainly focused on telecine sessions and eventual film-outs. It was a glorious, idealistic time and I wouldn’t trade it for the world – but I also know now that I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.


As soon as I began to book freelance work during my last couple semesters, I started to learn the score. Unless you were lucky enough to be loading mags for Roger Deakins, (or more likely bringing him coffee) you probably weren’t going to be bagging any film gigs with regularity. Right after graduation, I immediately took out a loan to buy my first Mac (a bleeding-edge-at-the-time G4 Quicksilver Dual 800 gHz) and locked myself away to learn Final Cut Pro (2.0!). Everything I learned about video was either self-taught or gleaned from sitting in with other working pros and asking questions. Everything I learned about business was gleaned from fucking it up and learning from my mistakes. Some of those mistakes were very expensive. Most of them were pretty stressful. It was a difficult road and I can’t help but think that at least SOME of the very expensive education I paid for would have prepared me for the business side of the equation.

When a new intern starts at ECG, all of us make sure to take time not only to focus on developing technical skills, but also on sharing tips about networking, cultivating personal relationships, accountability and general business acumen. It’s all part of the video production whole and the sooner you can learn it, the better. Entering the workforce after college can be intimidating no matter what your field. Coming out with a degree and expecting to be making high-art right out of the gate can be a pretty rude awakening. Hopefully we at ECG can pass on some of the knowledge we’ve gained along the path to ease that transition for the rising-graduates we work with. I certainly wish someone did the same for me – but again, the stumbles and the failures were all important learning experiences. Sometimes it’s just nice to learn from a peer rather than from taking a punch (metaphorically, or course).

Do you have a strong opinion about the value of education in the production field? Let us know in the comments below. As always, thanks for reading!

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